Ken Wiederhorn’s Shock Waves (1977): Nazi Nightmare

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Ken Wiederhorn made an impressive directorial debut with his 1977 Nazi zombie opus Shock Waves, which he also co-wrote along with future TV director John Kent Harrison and Ken Pare. The film’s supremely eerie score was composed by Richard Einhorn (his first), who would go on to score The Prowler, Don’t Go in the House, and Eyes of a Stranger (working again with director Wiederhorn). The film boasts ghoulish zombie effects courtesy of FX artist Alan Ormsby, who also worked on Bob Clark’s Deathdream (aka Dead of Night) and the 1974 necrophilia film Deranged (which he also directed). Filmed in 35 days in South Florida and financed cheaply for around $200,000, Shock Waves does a lot with very little. The film’s legion of deadly zombies — which seems to consist of many ghoulish members — was played by no more than eight different actors in zombie attire, and Wiederhorn was able to rent the abandoned hotel for the whole shoot for $250.

Shock Waves centers around a small group of people — which includes an earthy captain (John Carradine), pretty Rose (Brooke Adams), Keith (Flipper’s Luke Halpin), Chuck (Fred Buch), stubborn mule Norman (Jack Davidson) and his wife Beverly (DJ Sidney) and lazy, alcoholic crewman Dobbs (Don Stout) — aboard a yacht for a cruise who are shipwrecked on a creepy island after being struck during the night by a huge, seemingly empty freighter. As the group searches the desolate island for signs of human life, they happen upon a sprawling, seemingly abandoned hotel that turns out to have one sole occupant: A gloomy former SS Commander (Peter Cushing), tortured by guilt and self-loathing, who warns them all that an army of superhuman aquatic zombies created during WWII for killing purposes — and dubbed the Death Corps — are soon to rise from their watery graves and wreak havoc upon any living thing on the island.

His words are nothing less than the truth, and soon our shipwrecked travellers find themselves running in terror from a legion of pallid Nazi zombies hellbent on destruction. The group begins to dwindle as the undead beings pick them off one by one, always attacking and leaving the corpses of their victims in watery terrain (strangling Chuck with a belt in a pool, killing and stuffing Beverly into an oversized aquarium, etc.) Crewman Dobbs has an amusing demise that has him wading through a waist-high river on the island and spying from a distance the ghastly Nazi zombies, which startles him so bad he slips in the water and lands face-first on a spiky sea creature on the river floor. Eventually only Rose and Keith are left, the others (including the SS Commander) having been efficiently disposed of by the mindless killing machines. Rose learns by accident that they can be killed by removing their black sea goggles and exposing their eyes to sunlight, but is this knowledge enough to save them from an entire army of Nazi zombies?

The cast — both the known and unknown actors — is uniformly excellent. The film’s two veteran stars, Peter Cushing and John Carradine, were each paid $5,000 for four days of work, and their presence compliments the film beatifully. Cushing underplays grandly as the schizoid SS Commander, and Carradine is terrific as the salty captain; yet amazingly, we never learn their characters’ proper names! Lovely Brooke Adams makes an impressive film debut here as Rose, and it was really cool to see how blond Luke Halpin, who played Sandy Hicks on ’60s TV show Flipper, had changed since his teen years. Director Wiederhorn, who would go on to direct the stylish 1981 slasher Eyes of a Stranger, does a solid job in creating an eerie, oppressive atmosphere. Shock Waves was incidentally the very first underwater Nazi zombie film ever made, and there have only been two films made in the peculiar subgenre since: Jess Franco’s Oasis of the Living Dead and Jean Rollins’ Zombie Lake, both made in 1981 — and neither of which can touch the vastly superior Shock Waves.

Shock Waves the kind of horror film they just don’t make much anymore. It’s scary and exciting without using a drop of blood, and like the best horror films leaves a lot to the imagination. The film had been out of print and a highly sought after collector’s item until Blue Underground released it in widescreen on DVD in 2003, much to the delight of many horror fans who had been dying to see this spooky little gem again. I rate Shock Waves a well-deserved 8 of 10 and recommend it enthusiastically to horror fans who don’t rely solely on blood and gore to get their kicks.

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